Hackerspace, Feminism, Interview, Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory
By Rachelle Beaudoin
During the spring of 2014 I travelled to Vienna, Austria for an artist residency as a Fulbright Core Scholar at quartier21 hosted by Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory. Working in the space, I was able to meet and connect with many interesting and talented feminist artists including Stefanie Wuschitz. Our conversations and discussions were some of the most valuable experiences of my residency.
Stefanie is one of the founding members of Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory. Her work uses technology to engage the audience and to disrupt norms. Using various media, she takes on social issues from a feminist perspective and creates both virtual and physical networks. Her interest in feminist art and feminist hacker spaces in particular led her to write her dissertation, Feminist Hackerspaces. A Research on Feminist Space Collectives in Open Culture. (2014) This research, along with her practice-based study at ITP NYU, makes Stefanie an authority on the history, development and practice of feminist hacker spaces.
Having studied at similar program in Digital+Media at Rhode Island School of Design, Stefanie and I were able to connect through common and overlapping themes in our artistic practice. Although I consider myself well versed in the feminist art history, I was less familiar with the history and development of feminist hacker spaces, therefore I thought it would be beneficial to interview Stefanie to learn more about the development of Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory and to learn how this space was influenced similar spaces and by the previous generation of feminist hackers.
Patricia Reis, an artist and researcher from Portugal, was not at the lab while I was visiting but is an active member. Although we had not met prior to the interview, I felt it was important to include Patricia in the conversation in order to learn more about her perspective as a member of Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory. Her artwork and research takes a feminist approach to address issues of representation, intimacy and female participation in the development of technology.
The goal of Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory is to empower women to use and relate to technology by enabling the development of interactive art through hands-on workshops. They write, “We look to expand opportunities of our participants who may otherwise not explore the potential expressive power of technology.” (Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory 2015)
This interview continues the conversations we began in the space and extends the dialog to include both local and global issues and concerns that feminist hackerspaces face. During the discussion, we address the political implications of a space like this as well as the day-to-day realities of managing a feminist hackerspace. This conversation broadly serves as a portrait of the group, Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory, but also represents our individual beliefs as artists, hackers and feminists.
Figure 1. The exterior of Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory, Vienna Austria (Patricia Reis 2015)
[This interview was recorded and transcribed from a video chat on November 6, 2014. The piece below has been edited for clarity and length.]
Rachelle Beaudoin: How did you create Miss Baltazar’s[i]? How was it born? How did it get started?
Stefanie Wuschitz: There’s an animated cartoon from the ‘70s. It’s called ‘Professor Baltazar [ii]. It’s about a little guy. He’s very cute and he helps people using magic and technology and…
Patricia Reis: Inventing everything …
Patricia: It was also broadcast in Portugal and was translated into many different languages. It was quite famous in Europe.
Stefanie: That’s where the name originated. It started with a group a group of people who were interaction designers and artists and computer scientists. I invited them to come to meetings because I wanted to continue building on what I’ve learned earlier. At each meeting, just male socialized people showed up. At some point we said, “Okay. Some sessions are for females only.”
After the female only meetings began, we realized that it was making a big difference. We quickly realized it was making much more of a difference than we initially thought. We carried on doing that. At the beginning all this happened in Sweden. It was inspired by a group that’s called the ‘Genderchangers.[iii]’ They are based in Amsterdam and since the ‘70s, they have held meetings among female technologists so they can teach each other about free and open source technology; about how to use Linux, for example. These festivals and meetings are more like parties. They’re called Eclectic Tech Carnival [iv].
Because they are roughly one generation older than us, they were mentors to me and some other people here in Austria. Because it’s an open format, any woman in the world could do an Eclectic Tech Carnival, we took just the format of an Eclectic Tech Carnival and did our own festival in Sweden.
A lot of interesting people came to this carnival and shared their skills; afterwards we decided that we should continue hosting these events. When I came back to Austria, we just went into an existing hackerspace and set up shop. We were a bit like little cancers. We disrupted the status quo and just kept silently growing.
Patricia: In a separate room.
Rachelle: This is at Metalab[v]?
Stefanie: Yes. It was Metalab. It’s the oldest hackerspace in Vienna and Austria. I was there a lot but after a while we felt like it was time to have a room of our own. We moved to a prestigious art center called Museumsquartier. It was very artsy there and only very privileged people came. A lot of people were already academics. We decided to move to the outskirts, to the neighborhoods where migrants live, where there are people with different backgrounds. Now we are here in 15th district Sechshauserstrasse in an area that has not been completely gentrified yet.
Figure 2: A workspace at Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory (Rachelle Beaudoin 2014)
Rachelle: In addition to the influence of the Eclectic Tech Carnival, who else were you looking at? What other models did you use to create the space so that it had a feeling of openness and so that you could attract female and trans people to the space?
Stefanie: The people who started the space were actually artists. We had an open space in mind, one that was not for the single genius alone, but a space where people could collaborate and help each other to develop work. Then, of course, we wanted it to be in the ethic of a hackerspace—to use free and open-source technology and be inspired by the materials and by the passion about learning things and not about so much the results and the achievements.
Patricia: I think also it’s important to mention women-only art spaces, which were also a model for us. It was also enforced it in art spaces in New York in the US in 1970s
We also believe in open education. That’s why our workshops are usually open and offered as free. We invite other people to propose presentation or workshop topics or whatever they want to do in our space, even exhibitions.
Stefanie: The gallery space in New York that Pat was referring to was founded in SoHo in 1972 and is called A.I.R. Gallery [vi]. We also, I think, all see ourselves strongly in a critical position. It’s an anti-capitalist approach that’s not about making education into an item that you can sell.
Patricia: That’s also why our workshops are not only based on only technology or art. For instance we had a workshop on open furniture. We also had a workshop on how to fix your shoes. The idea is to share the knowledge with each other, to share what we know about these topics.
Stefanie: If the user becomes a maker and a producer then he or she can shape the environment and create the environment he or she lives in. That’s very important for us; this idea of agency, the idea that people are empowered through knowing how to do things and how to help themselves.
We are surrounded by technology because of the computing in our phones, in our shoes, in our keys, in our credit cards. There are so many chips. It becomes so overwhelming that many people feel totally numb. We really want to get into this idea of demystification and really talk about that. How can we do it ourselves? How can we take power over it? We don’t have to obey the rules. We don’t just have to take whatever technology we are delivered.
Rachelle: Can you say a little more about that? In the mission statement of Miss Baltazar’s you used this word demythify and I thought it was really interesting. Later you and I were discussing whether it was meant to be ‘demystify’ or ‘demythify’? Which got me thinking about the difference between those words. How does the space allow people demythify or demystify technology? What are you referring to when you use each term?
Patricia: I think they are different words but in this sense they say the same thing. In my opinion, I prefer the term myth and the idea of demythify precisely because it comes from this concept of myth, which usually describes a particular kind of story that has been retold from generation to generation with the goal of becoming an example for certain culture or society or to become ideology. I think when we use the word, ‘demythify’ it is precisely with the intention to remove this mythical character or aspect that is usually connected with complexity of technology.
Stefanie: The nice thing about a myth; it sometimes has a logic in itself. It has some path or storyline and a narrative that’s in itself correct. There is no way to patronize it, in a way. Making a new myth or re-mythifying, means having a culture that’s in itself correct.
Patricia: Yes. Also replace this idea of ideology. Instead of insisting on one point of view, we offer a space for different points of view.
Stefanie: Instead of one universal logic and universal culture, we have a little counter-culture here and many small myths. At the beginning, it was about working against this patriarchal and phallic-centric approach towards technology. Many girls start out thinking that technology is not for them. They think it is not interesting and that it will not be meaningful to them. This is a myth we wanted to fight; that technology is something far away that’s not of the business of females. It’s a really dangerous myth and it influences our lives so much. If we just think technology is part of the masculinity performance, then we just give away the chance to be part of the decision-making in our world.
Figure 3. Rachelle Beaudoin working with Deniz Aygün Benba at a workshop held at Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory (Beaudoin 2014)
Patricia: ‘Demystify’ in a different way is also related with the idea of this mystic and magic. We want also to turn this magic inside out or open the black box and show it. At least once a year we do a workshop where we just break things apart. We just open things. In the end we will recycle a lot of electronic components. We are not only opening up electronic devices or computers but any small machine. We try just to break them apart. We try to figure out what is inside, what is doing, what is creating this magic that is called technology?
Rachelle: You have also alluded to some of the feminist ideologies that help guide the space. What feminist scholarship has influenced you? How do these aspects of feminism particularly come into the space and how do you employ them?
Patricia: We didn’t have a distinction at the beginning. We agreed to have an open space; open to all different kinds of approach towards feminism and queer theory. We decided instead of just focusing on one scholarship or even one political agenda we create a space where we encourage the development of . . .
Stefanie: Conflict between them (laughing) …
Patricia: … creative thought. . . of different ones. It is a special type of place where we can generate discussion without taboos. Basically, we don’t have a manifesto because we decided, for the moment, it was too early for that. One of the most important things about our space as feminist space is the fact that we do a lot of practice. It’s very difficult sometimes to put theory into practice. We want it to be something different in that sense, a place of action. I think the way I see this space it’s something like an alternative to those academic contexts where a rigorous and rich theoretical background is needed in order to foment a discussion on feminism. By helping and sharing what I know in this field and encouraging other women and trans, I found that to be a very effective way to put feminism into practice.
Stefanie: Sometimes if people are in the academic field, they use terminologies that instill fear in others. This can make people feel uncomfortable because they will feel that they cannot articulate themselves in the same way. I think it’s good to keep out academic terminology as much as we can and discuss on basis of personal experience. On the other hand, sometimes it really comes in handy to read something together and discuss based on theory. Let’s just invite it in and let it inform our daily practices. For me, Audre Lorde was very important and eventually [Judith] Butler; and also for many people Donna Haraway of course. Because they all are against this identity … this woman essentialist identity. We have many different manifestations in difference, we are maybe different in stages of our lives, maybe, intersectional oppressions, maybe intersectional privileges. We are never just one; we are many. They don’t even use the word ‘identity’ anymore but more ‘subject positions.’ I think that many here in the group can relate to that philosophy that there is no essentialist womanhood, you know?
Rachelle: That leads to another question. If you agree with these theories and are against essentialist identity, why do you think it’s so important to have the group be women and trans and have it separated by gender identification?
Stefanie: I think that if you make a separatist move as a group that is marginalized for the same reason, you can fight this marginalization. Actually in this point was made in an article that was just published by Sophie Toupin (2014) she is quoting Faith Wilding.
I will just say it in my own words, her quote is just saying that there is a difference if you are marginalized as a group and are therefore forced to be in one category. Or if you choose freely to build your own peer group, in order to get rid of that common discrimination. I think that we all felt, not only in the technology world, but also in the media-art world, that we don’t have the same opportunities to exhibit out work and to propose our work to get funding. We don’t have the same way to articulate our artistic view and because of this we felt a little dominated.
Especially in hackerspaces, we felt that we could not just be ourselves and relax. We always have to be careful and watch out, are expected to fit in. We felt that our difference was perceived as negative. Those people who felt different, in a negative way, came together to see that actually they are not different from the group itself. It’s a paradox but it helps to see that the discrimination is not actually related to any reality. It’s just a stereotype that it’s related to. It helps to deconstruct the stereotype in a paradoxical way. It’s a little complicated but it works.
Patricia: We get a lot of feedback from our participants. They really feel very excited with this opportunity where they can actually ask whatever they want. They feel that they are in a fearless and fair environment where they can just ask a question that might be considered stupid in other contexts.
Rachelle: With the group, have you taken any political actions? Just the way the space is structured in itself has political implications, but are there large or small political actions that you’ve completed either through artworks or talks or through workshops?
Patricia: Yes. We work in all these different models. Last year for instance we curated several exhibitions in our window shop. We offered the space for solo exhibitions for women artists. In Vienna, we calculated that in the last five years, at the major art institutions, 70% of the solo shows were given to male artists and 30% to female artists. We decided to offer this space as a manifesto. Within this curatorial process we had, for instance, an exhibition about sex workers. This was also a political act regarding the space we are in because it was formerly the red-light district.
Stefanie: In the neighborhood it’s a very hot topic because there are a lot of sex workers in the street. Of course inhabitants are in conflict with the local government about whether it should be prohibited or not. Basically sex work in Austria is legal but there are many illegal sex shops. It’s a long story. It’s not just black and white. As a group, we try to have a political opinion that we voice together. For example, we invited refugees here who were occupying a square in Austria, in Vienna, to have their meetings in our space.
We had performance artists from Syria talking and making a performance about the violence in Syria. We are really trying to take sides here. We are not shying away from having political discussions. On the other hand, we think that the private is also political. So it’s also important to share things and to try to show solidarity to each other and be there for each other if someone has terrible crisis or something. That’s also political I think.
On another level we also try to reach out to other groups. We started Mz. Baltazar’s groups in Copenhagen, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and Brussels.
There are many groups that are Mz Baltazar’s Lab. It’s an open format that people can take over. Like Eclectic Tech Carnival was, it’s an open format that you can just appropriate and change to your needs or fit your context. That’s also very political, to share, to have networks, to build gangs, to be open.
Rachelle: It seems like in the US there are more feminists and trans-friendly places starting now that more Makerspaces are developing. How do you think we can make a connection between these spaces? How can we connect these kind of parallel practices that are happening in the US and in Portugal and in Austria?
Stefanie: I think really personal connections like these are very relevant. To know people personally and share experience, even face-to-face if possible, is really important. I think it is most important to have a network online. I am talking to a couple of people now about how we could manage to have people communicate online and share their experiences online somehow but we have not gotten to a solution yet.
Patricia: For the future we want to prepare, at least, to start with a website where we can actually pinpoint feminist hackerspaces out in a map. Then maybe a blog where everybody can actually share what they do.
Stefanie: We could create a metablog blog that’s collecting from all the blog posts of all the individual websites and posts automatically. When we still had money, we had a festival every year. One was in Belgrade, for example, that we did with feminist space there. They were called ‘Women at Work.’ We met twice in Austria. That was really nice. It really helped to keep in touch because if you have met personally and you were hanging out together, it changes everything.
Rachelle: I didn’t even know about some of the other spaces within the US, until I read that article that you mentioned, by Sophie (Toupin 2014). I didn’t know about the one in Michigan, for example. I think having something that connects people would be really important and could help.
Stefanie: I think they all popped up in the last three years. I think they’re mushrooming now. There’s a new one in Montreal called Fem Hack [vii]. I think it’s really something new in the US. Eventually, all groups like this, women in tech, run into the same problem. They don’t have resources. It’s the same thing with Metalab. People go to Metalab. They pay a €20 membership fee. None of our participants can afford that. They are artists, single mothers. . . They don’t have the money to share a space, that amount of resources. I think many feminist hackerspaces in the US have run into the issue of how to pay the rent.
Figure 4. Electronics storage including box labeled “Arduina” at Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory, Vienna Austria (Beaudoin 2014)
Rachelle: When I was there working in the lab I saw you had a little box of Ardunios but it said Arduinas, so I want to know why. Why call them that? Is that a subversive switch or feminization of Arduino?
Stefanie: Yeah. We’re being subversive. Because in Portuguese, German and in many languages you have a very strong masculine effect because you don’t have the ‘the’ like in English, the mouse, the house, the man and woman. You always have a gender.
Patricia: There is always a gender attached, especially to tools.
Stefanie: For example, the sun is female and the moon is male or the table is male. Most technology-related things in German and maybe in Portuguese and Spanish are male. We started doing that because we thought, in order to really make it our own, we have to identify with it in form. Even if it sounds ridiculous, we can identify more easily if we see that it could be also female.
Last week, I had a student who found my script and he was mocking me by making every single word female in the German script. I was a little shocked. It was as if he was mad. It was 12 pages and he changed every single word into female for me because he knew that I always do that with masculine tech words. For example, capacitor means Kondensator which is a male word. Like dictator kondensator, yeah? It said kondensatorin which is the female. That really drives many people nuts. They go crazy. It really makes them aggressive. It’s something very small but it makes a really big difference because people really feel that we make it our own. They say, “You should not change our language” and “How dare you destroy our language.”
Patricia: The tool becomes your sister, becomes your friend. It’s closer to you. But machine is female.
Patricia: Die Maschine. It’s the same in Portuguese; most of the tools are masculine. Actually the machine, the main machine, is female.
Stefanie: Also many weapons in the First World War had female names. They were named after women, with female first names. It’s strange.
Rachelle: I noticed your use of language and I figured that’s what you’re going for and I thought it was wonderful. I am glad I got to hear the whole explanation. It’s great.
I would like to know a bit more about the organization of the group. How is it structured? What are the dynamics like? There are often stereotypes about women’s leadership style or organizations run by women. For example, stereotypes that women can’t get along or talk behind each other’s backs. How do you manage and organize the space and deal with different personalities?
Patricia: We don’t believe in these stereotypes, of course, but we’d like to mention something important. As a cultural non-profit space, we do have a lot of challenges in organization and decision-making. I think this is common to other spaces as well. We are all volunteers. The conflicts are mainly due to our strong commitment and our emotional engagement with the political agenda of our association. Last year we made a very important decision that helped a lot. This decision was to move from a traditional hierarchal structure to a horizontal structure. There is no president or single leader. Which means we all make decisions in an equal and fair way and we all share the same responsibility. We all participate in the decision making process. Within this structure, we have found, that the most important element is trust. We really found that it’s very important to trust each other even if we don’t know each other well. We get a lot of new people involved all the time. Every time we have a jour fixe there are new people coming. We have to trust them to delegate tasks, to delegate responsibilities. I think this works much better than before, when each of us had a special role or responsibility in the development of the association. So yes, there’s a method. We trust each other, which is very important.
Stefanie: I must add it’s also about belonging. Because you can be away, you can travel, you can be busy for a while, but then when you come back you know you belong here. You can come back and people can delegate something to you if something is really urgent.
I think sometimes activist groups who are very provocative get a lot of aggression for their social and political agenda from the outside. Then sometimes this aggression gets channeled into relationships in the inside of the group. That’s not something unique about feminism. I think it happens everywhere. If there’s no way to free yourself from that position, then you just have to take the aggression. For example, if a man in a job has a boss who yells at him, many times he goes back to family and yells at the wife and the wife at the child then the child to the teddy bear.
As a feminist activist you are exposed, you get a lot of stupid emails and a lot of stupid comments and stuff; even more if you’re an artist. If you don’t talk about these issues, the aggression just accumulates and then it stays in the group. I think it’s really important for us to have a lot of time together to be aware of what it means, what we’re doing. That relates back again to the feminist theory questions. I think it’s really good to talk about theory in order to know that we’re not the only ones with these problems.
Patricia: I think it changes a lot when you put everything in a horizontal line and you don’t have this vertical organization because then you feel personally responsible and you want to participate. This is the kind of openness that we try to empower in the space.
Figure 5. Feminist icons stenciled on bathroom door at Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory, Vienna Austria (Beaudoin 2014)
Stefanie Wuschitz works at the intersection of research, art and technology, with a particular focus on feminist hacking, peer production and grassroots community formation. She graduated with an MFA in 2006. 2008 she completed her Masters at the Interactive Telecommunication Program at TISCH School of the arts at NYU and became Digital Art Fellow at Umeå University in Sweden. In 2009 she founded the feminist hackerspace Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory in Vienna. In 2014 she finished her P.h.D. with the title “Feminist Hackerspaces. A Research on Feminist Space Collectives in Open Culture” at the University of Technology, Vienna. Starting March 2015 Stefanie Wuschitz holds a Post-Doc position at the University of Michigan at the School of Information.
Patricia Reis was born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1981. She Graduated in Visual Arts from the ESAD (Superior School of Art and Desing, Caldas da Rainha) Portugal, in 2004, and in 2011 earned her Masters Degree from Lusófona University, Lisbon, Portugal. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Évora, Portugal, researching Media Art and Cultural Studies funded by FCT (The Foundation for Science and Technology of Portugal). As an artist and researcher she is interested in the intimate (cultural and political) relations between the subject of vision and image (namely the body representation) in photography, video and interactive media. She has a feminist approach on her artistic practice, in the context of media art, focusing on the assigned female roles in terms of representation (in the digital image), and on the lack of female participation behind the production of new technologies and art. Since 2012 she’s a member of Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory – a feminist hackerspace based in Vienna, Austria.
Rachelle Beaudoin is an artist who uses video, wearables, and performance to explore feminine iconography and identity within popular culture. She attended the College of the Holy Cross and holds a Master’s degree in Digital+Media from Rhode Island School of Design. She has exhibited at Intimacy: Across Digital and Visceral Performance Goldsmiths London UK, the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi Finland, Low Lives 3 and Itinerant Festival of International Performance Art, Queens NY. She was a Spring 2013 Artist-in-Residence at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass CO. She was Fulbright artist-in-residence with Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory at quartier21 in Vienna, Austria in 2014.
[i] Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory http://www.mzbaltazarslaboratory.org/
[ii] Professor Balthazar http://www.professor-balthazar.com/eng
[iii] Gender Changers http://www.genderchangers.org/index.html
[iv] Eclectic Tech Carnival https://eclectictechcarnival.org/
[v] Metalab https://metalab.at/
[vi] A.I.R. Gallery http://airgallery.org
[vii] FemHack http://foufem.wiki.orangeseeds.org/
Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory (2015) About: Mission [online] Available at: http://www.mzbaltazarslaboratory.org/blogDE/about-2/ [Accessed 13 April 2015.]
Toupin, S, (2014), ‘Feminist Hackerspaces: The Synthesis of Feminist and Hacker Cultures’, Journal of Peer Production. Issue 5, [online] Available at: http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-5-shared-machine-shops/peer-reviewed-articles/feminist-hackerspaces-the-synthesis-of-feminist-and-hacker-cultures [Accessed 29 Dec. 2014].
Wuschitz, S. (2014), Feminist Hackerspaces: A Research on Feminist Space Collectives in Open Culture. Ph.D thesis,Vienna University of Technology.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Patria Reis (2015) [Photograph] in possession of the author: Vienna Austria.
Figure 2. Rachelle Beaudoin (2014) [Photograph] In possession of the author: New Hampshire USA.
Figure 3. Rachelle Beaudoin (2014) [Photograph] In possession of the author: New Hampshire USA.
Figure 4. Rachelle Beaudoin (2014) [Photograph] In possession of the author: New Hampshire USA.
Figure 5. Rachelle Beaudoin (2014) [Photograph] In possession of the author: New Hampshire USA.